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Suckers for Superheroes

We should have known all along that David Petraeus was cheesy. And Lance Armstrong mendacious. And Joe Paterno a coward. And yet.


The carnival has moved on, but many are still mystified why David Petraeus abruptly abdicated his seat of power after a mere marital lapse. Even some Republicans who once flayed Bill Clinton over Monica were magnanimous to Petraeus, seeing no reason why his disloyalty to his wife should sully his reputation as a loyal patriot. So what was the real story? Benghazi? Classified documents stashed in Paula Broadwell’s mess kit?

I adhere to a less sexy explanation. Once the country learned that the man in charge of guarding the nation’s secrets was too inept to hide his own, his directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency could no longer pass the laugh test. Petraeus will always be remembered as the Spy Who Trusted Gmail. But let’s not waste tears on him. Adultery is no bar to pursuing other venerable Washington callings, most particularly the Senate and the House. With the Beltway fixer Robert Barnett by his side, Petraeus will soon better the six-figure advance Broadwell received for All In, even if his chances of improving on her title are approximately nil.

Perhaps it’s the country we should be a bit concerned about instead. What’s really shocking about the Petraeus affair is not Petraeus’s affair but the fact that once again, we were taken in by a secular plaster saint who turns out to bear only a faint resemblance to the image purveyed by the man himself and the mass media that abetted his self-glorification. (There were at least three book-length hagiographies before Broadwell’s and three Newsweek covers too.) The toppling of King David, as the Petraeus fanboys anointed him, is just the latest in a string of such flameouts. He was directly preceded, more grievously, by the disgraced sports legends Lance Armstrong and Joe Paterno and by the memoirist Greg Mortenson, whose best-selling Three Cups of Tea was spiked with derring-do fiction to sate his own thirst for money and self-promotion along with the professed goal of championing education for Muslim girls in remote corners of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Though we’ve also lived of late through the scandals of the Catholic Church and Major League Baseball, the unmasking of mega­ministers and Wall Street titans, and the penile pratfalls of John Edwards and Tiger Woods, our serial susceptibility to bogus heroes and their hoaxes remains undiminished. It’s as if there’s something in the national DNA that makes us suspend disbelief once our icons are anointed. You’d think in our digital age, when everyone can seemingly find out anything about anyone in a nanosecond—when transparency, thy name is Twitter—this pattern would have long since been broken and the country wouldn’t be so easily snowed. Instead, our credulousness seems as entrenched as ever, if not more so, with the same myopia by the press and public alike recurring with scant variation, whether the instance be as chilling as Paterno or as farcical as Petraeus.

As toppled heroes go, Petraeus is more tacky than tragic, more silly than sinister. He committed no crime, and since he was neither a preacher nor a public moralist, he is innocent of hypocrisy. Yet it is precisely the preposterously stark contrast between the cheesiness of the Petraeus we are now discovering and the gravity of the Petraeus we were sold that makes him so instructive a case study for this kind of national fraud. Let’s not forget that this was a man who was entrusted by two presidents with the most solemn duty in our national life—the running of two of the longest wars in American history. When George W. Bush turned to him to take over Iraq in 2007, it was in part to inject a serene, Ike-ish hero, however tardily, into an unpopular war. Bush branded Petraeus as his “main man,” plugging him incessantly in public, and Petraeus was happy to play the role to the hilt. After the grotesqueries of Donald Rumsfeld, Abu Ghraib, and all the rest, much of the public, at least that part of it that hadn’t tuned out the war altogether, bought into it as well. Soon, Republicans—stoked by Roger Ailes and Fox News—were talking about him for the presidency.

Even commentators who were critical of Petraeus’s warcraft rarely questioned his seriousness or maturity. Now it turns out that the man who had come to symbolize the ideal of a modern general—a Princeton-educated warrior-scholar who wrote the book on counterinsurgency—was actually closer in character to the preening Modern Major-General of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. We learned this not from the initial bombshell of his infidelity, a misdemeanor that indeed should be left to the jurisdiction of his immediate family, but from the larger, embarrassing backstory that has been filled in since. Belatedly, we now know that a leader heralded for his asceticism was so entranced with pomp, especially of the self-aggrandizing variety, that he gratuitously paraded his military medals on his civilian suit jacket in breach of Washington etiquette. We now know that in the Central Command Shangri-La of Tampa, he commandeered a 28-cop-strong motorcycle escort to speed him to a party at the waterfront mansion of the alleged “socialites” Scott and Jill Kelley. The motorcade was the Petraeus surge replayed as farce, deployed to achieve victory in the status wars presided over by central Florida’s answer to the Kardashians. For once we can say unequivocally, “Mission accomplished!”


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